The Daily Bread, 31st March 2020: The Bronze Serpent
Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 101(102):2-3,16-21; John 8:21-30
We are hearing a lot about vaccines these days. If I understand it correctly, a vaccine gives you in some form and to some degree the very infection it wants to protect you from. You are more likely to defeat the infection because you have it already, in some way, in your immune system.
There are vaccines you receive before the attack of the infection. But there are other vaccines you can receive once you have a health condition. I believe, for example, that a vaccine is being developed to fight against cancer.
In our first reading today, the Israelites are given a vaccine. Because of their refusal to trust in the Lord, he sends fiery serpents among them. Their bite brings death to many. The Israelites realise their sin and ask forgiveness. The Lord tells Moses to make a fiery serpent and put it on a standard. Moses makes a bronze serpent and all who look at it live, even if they have been bitten by the fiery serpents. You may know that the bronze serpent is the emblem used by the World Health Organization to this day.
It seemed odd of God to provide a cure which resembled the disease. But, it was a divine vaccine. And if we relate this incident in the history of Israel to the crucifixion of Christ, we can see that the bronze serpent was a prophecy of Christ exalted and crucified on the Cross.
What ails us, my brothers and sisters, is two-fold: sin and death. That’s our infectious disease. These are the bites of our fiery serpent. Looking to Christ on the Cross we see the One who carries all our sin and who dies all our deaths. But because he is himself sinless and therefore deathless, he is in person the vaccine, the medication, the healing of all our sin and death. In the story of the fiery serpents, the people were to look at the bronze serpent. What that means as regards the crucified Christ is that we are to believe in him.
Jesus says in the Gospel today, “if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” That’s like the Lord saying to the Israelites, “if you do not look at the bronze serpent, you will die of their bite.” The reason they were bitten was because they would not trust in the Lord or follow the commands of Moses, his servant. Despite the Exodus and all the wonders they saw, they would still not trust in God. They wanted to follow their own instincts, their own will, go back to Egypt where they had cucumbers and leeks and onions and everything to satisfy them. But conveniently they forget that in Egypt they were slaves, hard-driven into forced labour. They seem to forget that because their immediate instincts were for the food and drink they now lacked.
This question of the lack of trust is also true of the Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking in the Gospel. Despite the blatant proof that He was the Son of God, by the miracles he performed and the truth he spoke, they refused to believe in Him. They said they believed in “God”, but in fact they only believed in the God they wanted, the God they defined, the God they made in their own image and likeness. They said they had faith, but the only faith they had was in themselves: in their own wishes, their own will, their own preferences, their own views, their own convictions, their own ideology.
Whether we can compare the fiery serpents to the coronavirus, I don’t know. Whether we can say that the reason the coronavirus has been let loose on us is because of our rebellion, our lack of trust in God, I don’t know. But what we can say is that the truth Jesus spoke then to the Pharisees, is as equally valid today. Pope St. John Paul spoke of our contemporary culture of death, referring to abortion and euthanasia primarily but not exclusively. Pope Francis speaks to us frequently of the throw-away culture of today, with scarcely no awareness of the damage it does to humanity or to the earth which God gave us to care for.
What the coronavirus is telling us, then, if we take it as a sign from God, is that our culture and world need to repent of their rebellion against the law of God written into our nature and placed deep in our hearts by the Holy Spirit by means of the death and resurrection of Christ. Conversion and repentance, of course, are only possible one by one, starting with oneself. For if we do not take this invitation to convert and to believe and to trust in the Cross of Christ, we will, as Christ himself tells us, die in our sins. The Lord wants the death of no-one which is why his first words in the Gospel are “repent and believe in the Good News.” Don’t be deceived by the bad news (or fake news) that dresses itself up as good news: the bad news of egoism in all its forms, which is so attractive, so glittery. Repent of that and believe in the real Good News, which is the eternal love of God for every one of us and for all of us as a race. So, the first words of Jesus to repent and believe are made possible for us because he gave his own life that our repentance would bear fruit in the end of sin and the end of death. The Cross is our vaccine, provided of course we believe in the crucified Lord.
The coronavirus, from the angle of faith, places us before some very serious choices as individuals, as society and, yes perhaps above all, as Church. But as Jesus himself once cried out in exasperation, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?”